Last weekend, the leading voices of the QAnon camp gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the state of the world and the future of their movement. The prominent names in attendance at the convention included Jim and Ron Watkins, a father-and-son pair accused of inventing the conspiracy theory.
But the speech that ultimately garnered the most attention was by the actor Jim Caviezel, who is best known—at least among the conservative Christian crowd—for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Caviezel’s speech, which amounted to a literal call to arms against the liberal worldview, concluded with the proclamation that “the Storm is upon us”—a direct invocation of QAnon’s central conspiracy theory.
On Monday, Caviezel’s speech was quoted approvingly by a Catholic bishop. “All need to listen to this speech,” wrote Joseph Strickland, the bishop of Tyler, Texas.
While Strickland didn’t directly reference QAnon in his tweet, his critics weren’t surprised that he agreed with the sentiment. Strickland, who is 62, rose to prominence in the Texas Church while blogging about his daily jogs, priestly duties, parish goings-on, and his eventual elevation from priest to bishop under Pope Benedict in 2012. He has maintained his online presence since then, and while he is just one of some 250 bishops in the U.S., he has leveraged his platform to become one of the leading voices of the Catholic right.
In 2018, Strickland threw his support behind Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s broadside against Pope Francis, accusing him of covering up sex abuse allegations. Strickland was, from that point, associated with the Francis opposition. He went on to accuse the Church of having a “deep state” and challenge the pope to fire him for “not being politically correct.”
His interference in secular politics is even more direct. An outspoken critic of President Joe Biden and all other Catholic Democrats, Strickland has typically focused his energy on crying out against gay marriage and, most emphatically, abortion, labeling the supporters of abortion rights as agents of evil. But those aren’t the only issues that Strickland cares about, and while his position on abortion lines up with Catholic teaching, several other stances very much do not.
The most shocking evidence for this came from his firm support for a blogger priest named Fr. James Altman, whose reactionary positions led his own bishop in Wisconsin to ask him to resign. (Altman is currently challenging his ousting in a canonical appeal.) Altman set off a firestorm in 2020 with a video titled “You cannot be a Catholic & a Democrat. Period.” In the video, he asserted that Democrats would burn in hell because of the party’s support for abortion rights, DACA, and climate change mitigation efforts.
“As the Bishop of Tyler I endorse Fr Altman’s statement in this video,” Strickland wrote on Twitter in response. “My shame is that it has taken me so long. Thank you Fr Altman for your COURAGE. If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation…pleases HEED THIS MESSAGE.”
In subsequent videos, Altman said both climate change and COVID were hoaxes, made homophobic, misogynistic, and antisemitic comments, blasted Black Lives Matter and “cancel culture,” blamed Breonna Taylor’s death on her choice of boyfriends, urged Catholics to avoid the COVID vaccine, called the Jan. 6 insurrection a “false flag operation,” and accused Pope Francis of “betray[ing God] like Judas.”* Strickland has only doubled down on his support for Altman, tweeting that the priest was only “in trouble for speaking the truth.” For a while, onlookers speculated that Altman would try to transfer to Strickland’s diocese for shelter.
Strickland likes to be in the news. He led a prayer for a national election fraud rally. He has continued to crusade against the COVID vaccine, which he incorrectly claims uses fetal cells from abortions. He has also agreed to sponsor a project called “Veritatis Splendor” that plans to establish a 600-acre commune for Conservative Catholics to free themselves of the perceived anemia of liberal Catholicism. For critics, each of these positions shows one clear thing about Strickland: He is eager for a fight.
Like many conservative Catholics who feel their worldview has been sidelined by Francis’ papacy, Strickland speaks often of the ascendance of evil and sin in the world and the urgent need to overthrow the current state of things. In an interview last year, Strickland recalled a meeting with Francis with disdain. “The world is falling apart and Pope Francis was very cordial, very welcoming,” he said. “But like I said, I mean, when a leg has been severed and we’re bleeding out, I don’t think we really need cordial and welcoming. We need something more.”
This, ultimately, was Caviezel’s message as well. In his 20-minute speech, the actor spoke of sex trafficking and abortion, of the welfare state, of the corrosion of freedoms and the vague evils of liberalism. He compared the current state of the country to that of the enslaved Israelites, or of the oppressed American colonies, or of Europe facing the menace of Nazi Germany. “We’re at war now with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind,” Caviezel said. He continued:
There’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace and you can have it in the next second: surrender. Admittedly there’s a risk to any course we follow other than this. But any lesson is history tells us the greater risk lies in appeasement. And this is the specter our well-meaning Christian liberal friends refuse to face. Our priests, our pastors, and now, sadly, even our pope. Our policy of accommodation is appeasement and it gives us no choice between peace and war, only between fight and surrender.
Caviezel then quoted in full Gibson’s final speech in Braveheart in which the character William Wallace urges Scottish soldiers to sacrifice their lives for freedom. (Gibson, who Caviezel mentioned several times, is strongly associated with the fringe Catholic right as well and recently spoke at an event for “canceled” priests.) “My fellow Americans, you and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Caviezel said. “We are headed into the storm of all storms. Yes, the Storm is upon us, but not without Jesus as our rudder.”
Strickland’s support for Caviezel’s speech wasn’t that surprising to his critics, given that he has already shown himself to be on board with conspiracy-minded thinking: He signed a letter earlier in the year asserting that the COVID pandemic had been used as a “pretext” to deprive Americans of their freedoms and promote a “world government.” There is, after all, a certain shared DNA to QAnon and the conspiratorial Catholic right. Each has its byzantine conspiracy theories positing a depraved, Satanic evil at the core of their respective institutions. But the Strickland situation shows their similarity to be deeper. As with the leaders of QAnon, it’s not Strickland’s strange and unfounded beliefs that cause Catholics to worry about division in the Church—it’s his direction to his followers to fight for them.
Correction, Oct. 28, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Breonna Taylor’s first name.
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